Thoughts From Three: A Little Night Music

After the success of Jim Vermeulen's XC Journal in the many falls of Cross Country, we've asked again for him to provide some news and notes once a month. Think of these as the thoughts that cross the mind of your average coach. Up from Section 3, we present you with "Thoughts From Three."

"...there are all kinds of stories and all kinds of houses, but only the ones you have lived in matter."

Pete Dexter, "The Old Man and the River,"

They were scheduled to conclude their seasons by racing the 4x800 at leagues. It was not, to be honest, by dint of any victory expectation-or even challenging the leaders. Justification had instead come slowly, steadily expanding to a long list of reasons: that accumulation of days and weeks where they showed up with best efforts and no demands and no complaints. In the end, they had simply earned it. But then our league championship was cancelled due to the indifferent upstate winter weather. So I told them they would race their relay at the sectional championship. None of them had ever been in a track sectional championship before, but they didn't need me to impress them with anything. 

After our short bus ride to the OCC track for the sectional championship, after settling in our small boys/girls' teams and checking off the Leonetiming entry lists, there was a little time to lean against the timing area rail with an old coaching colleague and chew the fat. This was still our season with no officials, who were on strike, and so it only took a moment to get around to that. Thanks to volunteers, college students assisting at both our sectional venues and clerking/officiating help from previous coaches or sectional officials, we'd just about made it through with no detrimental effects to the athletes. But you couldn't count many coaches happy about the ordeal--and most had an opinion. "There another side to this," a friend had told me a few days earlier. He happens to be one of those striking officials who had, to that point, yet to issue any statement of cause or principle. "Yes, but there's only one side of the story being told right now," I replied to him. "And it's not very flattering to you guys."

There was another beef available for the evening's chats. As is usual, the entry standards and the Milesplit top-10 lists, our two qualification methods for sectionals, had produced more than a few close calls. I enjoyed the dubious distinction of owning two of them, both sprinters who ended just outside the top-10 and with times 1/100 of a second off the 55m standard. My appeals were rejected, but not before a healthy go-around of opinions by league reps in a group e-mail. The 'opening a can of worms' defense was raised several times, as was the 'had enough chances' defense, even though our league had one less very important chance when its championship fell to weather. "And that extra meet this season came on December 8th," my assistant groused, wondering how that really helped much. But our coaches' conversation at least prompted some ideas about streamlining the process. While watching runners warming up on the track, I heard at least two that were more effective than mine. Soon enough, though, runners veered off the track and hats were removed. Coach Jenson boomed the national anthem in his resonant baritone, and the championship was underway.

Never as good as you want, but never as bad as feared either-that's pretty much the reality of affairs involving large numbers of young adults. Track meets are no different. Preach health and sleep and nutrition in the lead up to an important competition, and someone will get sick or have a 'bad day.' You can bank on it. Some humbling celestial law of balance is at play. So when Runner B's elaborate race plan went to crap a little over halfway in, my job became silence. There was no usable Plan B, so a respectful witness to disappointment was my best option. More often than not, however, silence on the part of coaches during races gets misinterpreted. Screaming directives at struggling athletes who cannot-or will not-invoke them is expected. Coaches who strut and fume at poor performances, who sometimes look like their heads are about to explode over an expectation gone awry-even those reactions are typically excused, as though anger is the only indication of engagement. But during those bad races, people usually don't know what to do with silent coaches. What are they thinking anyway? In this case, I was wondering what Runner B would, post-race, offer me about his effort and then, more importantly, the next day in his Race Analysis when he'd had time to think and reflect and plan. 

Near meet's end, our sectionals neophytes queued on the start line, then three stepped back to their wait zone and left Zach alone, gripping the baton and staring intently ahead. With the gun, adrenalin got the better of him as he jumped his first 400, racing only two tenths slower than his all-time PR in that distance before slamming the wall and slowing in the second half. Still, it was almost a five second PR and the handoff went free of problems. "Nice," I congratulated him as we watched Justin circle with the same over-enthusiasm. When Justin wobbled off the track and Aidan hummed off around the first turn, I gave Justin his split, a 6.3 second all-time PR. "Two for two," I announced. The goal was four. Aidan, pumping for all he was worth, raced the most balanced leg and came across with a five second PR. "Three for three. We need one more," I said to my growing group of cheerleaders. And on cue, Sam came through with the slimmest of PR's, a 1.3 second effort, but a PR nonetheless. They stood around, smiling and exchanging congratulations. "And," I reminded them, "you just scored for the team at sectionals." 

"I'm nervous," my assistant confided as time for the boys' 4x200 drew near. "Do you get nervous?" The relay had a shot at the sectional championship, the 2nd qualifier time for states, a school record. The import of all that was pumping up Coach too. "No," I told him. "At this point, I get more nervous about getting to the point where you can get nervous." Coach Delsole used to refer to that as 'being in the hunt.' Having, for years, watched some high-wire performances go marvelously well and others go disastrously wrong, the one constant is the helplessness once your athletes are on the start line or runway--and thus actually beyond your control. You learn to live with that. Trackside screaming is often a welcomed support, but the volume is just as often a placebo for coaches and fans. Many apply that medicine liberally. 

Nervous or not, the 4x200, four seniors who had shared some goals at the beginning of the season, took the track. They were the underdogs but confident enough to use that fact. Win outright or be pulled to a best time, maybe that 2nd qualifier standard. There was everything to gain. Dan took his customary opening leg, and two racers and less than forty-five seconds later, the event had become a two-team affair. We chased. Esaias' closing leg was one of his best, but not enough to catch Proctor. Still, they did break an old school record, closed on the 2nd qualifier standard and, because of the cancelled SCAC meet, the four racers hooting and exchanging fist-bumps with their sprint coach would now be designated league champions. 

It's the day after. The 4x200 advances to the State Qualifier with a new school record, but still in search, one way or other,  of that trip to 'states.' One more shot. One more opportunity for Coach P. to get nervous. The 4x800 guys, however, are in fact done for the season this time. I'm looking at Zach's database history of grade-level 800m PR's--his 8 second improvement freshman to sophomore, then his 8 second improvement again sophomore to junior. If he keeps this up, the senior year will be interesting. I'm already sure no future employer will gauge his persistence by whether he ever earned a sectional title.